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Lily Thai's death sparks increased interest in voluntary assisted dying

The death of 23-year-old Lily Thai helped raise awareness about end-of-life choice in South Australia, the Voluntary Assisted Dying Review Board has said in its latest quarterly report.

When South Australia's voluntary assisted dying (VAD) law came into effect on 31 January 2023, 23-year-old Lily Thai decided to apply.

The young Adelaide woman suffered from Ehlers Danlos Syndrome and auto-immune autonomic ganglionopathy, conditions that had crippled her with pain and illness for most of her life.

Explaining her decision, Lily told the Adelaide Advertiser on 17 June: “I realised that I can’t have any more anaesthesia, so I (couldn’t) have any more feeding tube changes (or) surgeries. 

“I decided that pain was so severe it wasn’t worth it, and I just wanted to take it into my own hands.”

A few days later, on Wednesday, 21 June, doctors administered the VAD substance and Lily died surrounded by beloved friends and family.

Latest Quarterly Report

Now, South Australia’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Review Board has released its latest Quarterly Report.

In her introductory message, Presiding Member, Associate Professor Melanie Turner acknowledged the significant media coverage sparked by Lily's decisionsaying it helped to “shed light on the importance of choice at end of life”.

The report, which covers the period between 1 May and 30 June 2023, states that 40 VAD permits had been issued in the period.

Associate Professor Turner noted the “gradual increase” in comparison to the first quarterly report, which listed 28 issued permits.

Of the 40 permits issued, 27 people died through VAD. Since the law took effect on 31 January 2023, a total of 38 people have now died using the system.

Go Gentle Australia CEO, Dr Linda Swan, said this moderate growth was entirely in line with expectations.

“This is exactly what has happened in other states around Australia as awareness of VAD as a safe and compassionate end-of-life option increased.

"Only a tiny number of people ever choose voluntary assisted dying and these figures are well within the expected range of 0.5% to 3% of total deaths in South Australia."

The statistics

Between 1 May and 30 June, 32 people died after being issued with a permit: 19 through self-administration, 8 via practitioner administration, and 5 without taking the substance.

Of the 32, 

  • 19 had cancer, with the remaining patients suffering from a neurodegenerative disease or respiratory failure
  • 20 were aged over 70 years 
  • 18 were female and 14 were male 
  • 19 lived in metropolitan Adelaide and 13 lived in regional South Australia 
  • 13 people died at home, 15 died in a hospital and 4 died in a residential aged care facility 
  • 21 people were receiving a palliative care service while accessing voluntary assisted dying.

'He died with dignity'

Associate Professor Turner said the Board continues to hear feedback “about the role voluntary assisted dying plays in alleviating suffering for individuals and the peace of mind it can offer to the bereaved”. 

One family member quoted said, “I just want to say how grateful we all are that dad could leave this world on his terms. I just want to preach from the hilltops, he was 94 and he died with dignity”.

GPs play important role

Since the law took effect, a total of 112 medical practitioners have registered for mandatory VAD practitioner training with 66 completing the course and able to deliver VAD in South Australia.

Of the 112 medical practitioners who registered to complete the mandatory training, 66 were general practitioners with the remaining 46 from a range of medical specialties, including oncology, general medicine, neurology, palliative medicine, emergency medicine, anaesthesia and psychiatry. 

“The high representation of general practitioners reflects the important role that GPs play in end of life care planning for patients living with a life limiting illness,” their report said.

The impact of Lily's story in raising awareness of end-of-life choice demonstrates the importance of talking openly about voluntary assisted dying. 

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